One player who has been steadily rising all season but who hasn't gotten a lot of attention until the last couple of months is Ryan Johansen of the Portland Winterhawks.
Earlier in the year, he was better known as Nino Niederreiter's center, a tall but gangly pivot who was seen as extremely raw and one-dimensional (all pass, no shoot), but scouts are coming around on him as one of the draft's better values later in round one.
"He's just a guy who's gotten better and better as the season has gone along," said one NHL scout with an Eastern Conference team who covers the Western Canadian junior circuit. "At first, I thought of him as a kid who had some upside but a few flaws in his game as well, namely his skating and shooting skills. But, his development this year has been significant; he's shown real improvement in both areas."
The scout is not alone-- in a quick straw poll of several NHL and independent scouting sources I took recently, Johansen topped the list of players who has improved the most from the start of the year to where we are now. And, Johansen's meteoric rise from obscure prospect to one of the top centers in the 2010 draft class hasn't just been confined to the 09-10 campaign.
"One factor we've been weighing heavily in our evaluation is that Johansen has gone from being a 4th liner in Penticton (BCHL) early last year to a dominant forward in the WHL-- so the development curve on this kid appears to be heading straight up," said Red Line Report, an independent scouting review, in their March bulletin.
Johansen was ranked 20th overall by Red Line this month, moving up from 66 in August, the first month of the publication's rankings. He has a lot of filling out to do, listed at 6-foot-2, 188 pounds. He scored 21 goals and 69 points in 71 WHL regular season contests, adding two markers and seven points in six playoff games. He's got a long, loping stride with the soft hands, vision and superior hockey sense that all top playmakers possess.
However, if you've not had a chance to see Johansen yet, you might want to either make a trip to Spokane or gather whatever information you can on him in the next 24 hours. His Winterhawks blew a 3-1 opening round series lead to the Spokane Chiefs and the teams are now tied 3-3, setting up a seventh and decisive game in Spokane Wednesday night. The momentum is squarely with the higher-seeded Chiefs, and Johansen, Niederreiter and Brad Ross's WHL season could all be over when Thursday rolls around (I've heard Niederreiter's been solid, but Ross has played poorly).
All is not lost, though. If the 'Hawks get bounced, then Johansen is a lock to make Team Canada in the World Under-18 Championship next month in Minsk, Belarus. Scouts will get a good look at him (and Niederreiter, who will play for Switzerland if Portland does not advance) there and both players will get one last chance to make definitive statements before the draft.
Now, if the Bruins miss out on a top-two selection and end up drafting a defenseman with the Toronto first-rounder, then Johansen is a possibility for them should they make the playoffs and be anywhere in the 15-18 range. The fact that they have plenty of centers won't deter the Bruins from taking another one like Johansen if they believe he is the best player available when their pick rolls around come June.
UPDATE: Johansen and his team prevailed in Game 7 over Spokane-- a HUGE character win for Portland. Johansen has been a monster in the playoffs thus far, with four goals and 13 points in nine games. He's been the best forward so far, and has outshined Niederreiter. Looks like he could move himself nicely into the top-15 when all is said and done.